One night about a year ago, when Bridget was blissfully unaware of the difference between night and day, and her father and I were experiencing something slightly different than bliss, it struck me that I needed to think of my inexplicably crying baby not as a problem that I was having, but as a person who was having a problem of her own. Okay, so yes, I was having a problem, but it was much easier to work with when I remembered to think of her as another person having a problem which she needed me to help her solve.
I’ve just gotten through reading Alfie Kohn‘s parenting advice book Unconditional Parenting. His approach of shifting the question from “how can I get my kid to obey?” to “what does my kid need now?” represents a similar philosophy. But his is carefully thought out and supported by evidence, rather than a random burst of insight in the middle of a sleepless night.
This book argues that children need to experience unconditional love, and that the way to offer this is not through rewards and punishments but through treating children with respect:
The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive. (62)
That’s certainly a philosophy I can get behind, and one that fits well with a basic feminist ethic of treating all people like human beings.
My only big complaint about Unconditional Parenting is that Kohn is so focused on what kids need, he almost forgets that parents actually have needs too. Kohn writes about willful toddlers:
It’s unsettling for most of us to find that someone has sneaked in during the night and replaced our helpless infant with a toddler who has a will of her own. What had been an adorable baby now has the nerve to pursue her own agenda and oppose some of our demands. Will we resist the temptation to try to figure out ways of outsmarting her? (110)
Oh boy, is this passage ever relevant for me. Bridget is currently very interested in washing her hands. She would like to be held up at the sink, feeling the water run over her hands and arms, and practicing with the soap, long after my back aches and I need a break. Kohn suggests saying “yes” to kids as much as possible and I do support her hand washing project, but he doesn’t really say what to do when I’ve had more handwashing than I can take.
Still, the book is very readable, quite convincing, and includes practical suggestions that I have already implemented. And in a culture that too often sees kids as problems to be solved, I can tolerate an occasional excess of focus on them as people who deserve love and respect.
Alfie Kohn. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York: Atria Books, 2005.